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How to Deter a War with China Over Taiwan 

Convincing Beijing that conflict is unnecessary is more effective than beating the drums of war.

(Xinhua/Xie Huanchi via Getty Images)

Europe is suffering its largest land conflict since the Second World War in Ukraine. This fight could turn out to be a mere overture if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait. Tensions are high: Congress recently approved $8.1 billion for Taipei and elsewhere in the Pacific, while the president has repeatedly said that he would defend Taiwan. That would put the United States into a conflict potentially like no other, with nuclear weapons at 10 paces.

Yet those most determined to escalate America’s involvement in the Russo–Ukrainian war insist that there is nothing to worry about. If only the U.S. holds firm in Ukraine, the Chinese will run for cover over Taiwan. Yet the claim that Beijing would fear Washington when the latter refuses to intervene on Kiev’s behalf, allowing Moscow’s aggression to advance, seems illogical at best. Indeed, Johns Hopkins’s Hal Brands warned that this stance may “have convinced Beijing that the United States just won’t fight a conventional war against a nuclear-armed rival.” Hence China’s ongoing nuclear build-up.


Worse, American policy seems more likely to encourage than discourage such a conflict. Rather than reassure the People’s Republic of China that its red lines won’t be crossed, the administration is stationing American forces in Taiwan, emphasizing that nation’s value in constraining China, and saying little as congressional leaders flaunt ties with Taipei. Leading Republicans, including a former secretary of state and national security adviser, advocate recognizing Taiwan as the Republic of China. It is almost as if Washington’s policy elite wants war with the PRC.

They shouldn’t. 

Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Never mind the Taiwanese people, who do not want to be ruled by a Chinese Communist Party increasingly inclined to Maoist tyranny (though, so far, not Maoist chaos). The PRC long showcased Hong Kong as a model of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan, but China’s brutal crackdown on the “special administrative region” has largely extinguished any lingering Taiwanese support for reunification.

Nevertheless, most Chinese, and not just those in the party or government, believe the PRC should regain control of the island state. One reason is historical. Imperial China possessed the island then known as Formosa, only to lose it in 1895 to Japan. This occurred during the so-called age of humiliation, during which Great Britain seized Hong Kong, Portugal grabbed Macau, and various European governments along with Japan and the U.S. took territorial “concessions.” Today only Taiwan remains unredeemed.

Another issue is security. Barely 100 miles off the PRC’s coast—roughly the distance of Cuba from America—Taiwan’s main island would pose a serious threat to Beijing’s ambitions if held by or allied with an adversary. American analysts are open about their designs. For instance, the Atlantic Council recently issued a report entitled “Taiwan: The Key to Containing China in the Indo-Pacific.” 


The Chinese have noticed and are not pleased. The nationalistic, semi-official Global Times observed, “The US is incorporating Taiwan into its strategic layout in the Asia-Pacific region as a pawn through various means, while the Democratic Progressive Party authorities have taken the initiative to throw itself into the arms of the US and ‘sell Taiwan for peace.’ The U.S.-Taiwan military collusion is being pushed forward in accordance with Washington’s tempo and will.” It is worth remembering the U.S. reaction to the Soviet Union establishing military ties with Cuba in 1962. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean China is entitled to coerce the Taiwanese people. Nevertheless, Beijing continues to believe otherwise. So what should Americans do if the PRC eventually decides on war? Despite what appears to be an almost uniform assumption in Washington that the U.S. would defend Taiwan, the American people are more inclined toward providing aid rather than troops. And, in fact, Americans have no obligation to go to war on Taipei’s behalf. Indeed, they shouldn’t do so. The cost and risk of doing so would be too high. It is Washington’s obligation to protect the American people from precisely such a danger, war with a great power over stakes that are not essential.

Although no one knows what would happen in a conflict over Taiwan, war games uniformly show massive losses for the U.S., which has lost the majority of encounters. Of course, the world is not static, but even in war games where Washington wins—at least in the sense of denying Beijing control of Taiwan—and the rules exclude a nuclear response, the U.S. loses multiple carriers, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of personnel. Other factors could multiply the toll: American forces would inevitably strike mainland bases, encouraging Chinese escalation; neither Xi Jinping certainly nor the CCP possibly could survive a failed campaign, encouraging them to go all in; forced to contemplate the prospect of an Asian Armageddon, future governments of South Korea and Japan might decide to stay out of any war; and, faced with rising conventional losses, two nuclear-armed powers could find the temptation to escalate overwhelming.

Not everyone is pessimistic. The commentator Richard Hanania recently suggested that “the US and China would likely be able to manage escalation and keep it well short of any WWIII threshold, like superpowers have before in other conflicts.” Yet the general Cold War experience was one of proxy wars, allowing the combatants some distance and deniability. Nor were the stakes, at least in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and most other Third World lands, as great.

In contrast, in Cuba, so close to America, Moscow and Washington only narrowly avoided a clash and likely nuclear war. Ukraine is so dangerous precisely because it matters so much to Russia. How a shoot-out over Taiwan, with the PRC sinking carriers and the U.S. bombing the mainland, would develop is uncertain and dangerous. Indeed, the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig warned that “given the high stakes, either side could possibly decide to use a nuclear weapon in such a conflict,” and “in the event of the use of a single or a handful of nuclear weapons in such a conflict, an extended nuclear exchange could occur.” 

There also are optimists who believe the risk of war is minimal. Some supposedly serious officials imagine that all Uncle Sam needs to do is crook his little finger and Beijing would abandon its claim to the island state. For instance, Leon Panetta, who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, declared, “I think frankly if China understands that we’re serious about that, China’s not going to do that. They may be a lot of things, they’re not dumb.” Others talk of restoring deterrence, which they believe would cause the Chinese to back away. Such sentiments, perhaps rooted in a long-outdated view of the military balance, reflect hope over experience. If current officials similarly believe that they can dictate to the PRC, war seems inevitable.

With Taiwan embodying issues of both security and nationalism, it is folly to dismiss Chinese concerns. Washington decided that Russia’s Vladimir Putin wouldn’t make good on his threats against Ukraine and refused to negotiate seriously before the invasion, The result has been carnage in Europe. Equally dangerous would be dismissing the PRC’s views on the state called the Republic of China.

Another view is that conquering the island would be too difficult, ensuring that Beijing won’t try. Hanania rates the likelihood of Chinese attack on Taiwan just 10-15 percent by 2035. After all, “invading, or even subduing, Taiwan would be extremely risky and hard. China may be a bit of a bully, but it is a risk averse one. There’s no way that they can’t know that trying to conquer Taiwan would pose all kinds of challenges and risks, so they likely won’t do it.”

That’s a comforting thought, but he is almost certainly too optimistic. When faced with losing options, governments often choose a losing alternative rather than abandon deeply held views or highly valued interests. When Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. in December 1941, rationalization became national policy, with disastrous results.

Still, there’s no doubt that Beijing would prefer to avoid war. Xi might be evil, but he isn’t dumb, as Panetta noted. The PRC’s aim has consistently been a coercive negotiation to force reunification in some form. Beijing’s policy has been aimed at getting Taiwan to abandon its independent existence. China continues to promise autonomy but, alas, after Hong Kong few Taiwanese are inclined to believe Xi. Thus, the best practicable outcome almost certainly is continuation of the status quo: a Taiwan free to make its internal political and economic choices but not formally recognized as an independent nation. 

Although it might well be true that Xi is growing impatient and would like to cap his legacy with cross-strait reunification, he also likely realizes that a botched invasion would mean the end of his career. Crossing 100 miles of rough water to conquer a well-defended island would be one of the most difficult military maneuvers possible. Taiwan can make it more so, even if the U.S. does not intervene directly. Three China specialists observe that “Washington can help Taiwan’s military stockpile and train with coastal defense and air defense weapons, field a robust civil defense force, and create strategic reserves of critical materials.” 

As a result, inertia argues for Beijing doing little so long as Taiwan does not appear to be moving from Taiwan to the Republic of China internationally. As the China analysts explain: “For now, Beijing likely appreciates that a direct assault on Taiwan would be prohibitively costly for China. But if Xi comes to believe that the political cost of inaction in the Taiwan Strait poses an existential threat to the CCP’s rule, he or his successors may well take enormous risks, including a dramatic military escalation. Xi would entertain such an approach only if all other avenues to unification were closed or if he calculated that restraint carried the highest political risk.”

Unfortunately, at least some Chinese policymakers perceive such circumstances may be impending. PRC diplomats and analysts with whom I spoke around the time of the Pelosi visit were agitated and perceived a change in “the status quo,” as Taiwan’s non-official status is called. More ominously, in recent discussions they insisted that a return to the pre-Pelosi visit environment is impossible since they believe the eventual result of current U.S.-Taiwanese policy is independence, which even many American analysts believe would spark a military response by Beijing.

What matters is not the correctness of this view, but the fact that Chinese policymakers believe it. And that belief might be sufficient to cause the PRC to decide on military action now rather than risk losing Taiwan forever. To forestall this result, Washington should work to pacify Chinese concerns. Effective deterrence requires providing “China with incentives to moderate its aggression, not by developing new reassurances but by better acknowledging existing ones.”

It won’t be easy, but Washington should pursue a tripartite agreement with Beijing and Taipei for a concerted retreat from confrontation, leaving the controversy to the future. At home the Biden administration should seek an understanding between government branches and political parties. No more using Taiwan for political grandstanding and symbolic warmongering. No more using Taiwan for virtue-signaling and China-bashing. The potential consequences of doing so, deceptively low to the participants, are too great to justify.

The Taiwanese deserve to be free. Yet their liberty does not justify the U.S. going to war with China. A Sino-American conflict could prove far worse than the Russo-Ukrainian war, with the two major combatants being nuclear powers. Washington’s responsibility is to the American people first. That means putting their interest before that of foreign governments and staying out of unnecessary foreign wars—including over Taiwan.